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Sex, Lies, And Videotape: India’s Politically Charged Dystopia

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The reactionary of any kind condemns sexual pleasure because it stimulates and repulses him at the same time. He is unable to solve the conflict within him between sexual demands and moralistic inhibitions.

-Wilhelm Reich

To adapt Shakespeare, there is something rotten in the state of India. Her public sphere is now particularly marked by a heady mix of anxieties about sexuality, fake news, and social media technologies. When combined with a majoritarian religious nationalism, they become squalid and deadly.

Thus, Amit Malviya, Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) IT Cell head, tweets pictures of Jawaharlal Nehru embracing and kissing his sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit and niece Nayantara Sehgal as proof of his sexual amorality. “Sex CDs” of Hardik Patel, similarly, try to prove his amoral character. For Malviya, Hardik Patel has the same DNA as Nehru: both are “secular philanderers.”

Or, sample the violently misogynist tweets of many right-wing Twitter handles followed by Prime Minister Modi, who indulge in verbal sexual harassment of women journalists and activists who are critical of him. Or, those who insinuate that these women are of “loose character”, believe in “free sex” and are “prostitutes” (the same accusation was used before by a senior BJP leader on Mayawati). From this to death threats to Deepika Padukone is a step away.

What explains this depravity surrounding sexuality in the Hindutva nationalist imagination?

Wilhelm Reich, a psychoanalyst, gives some clues through understanding the psychological basis of authoritarianism in his illuminating book “The Mass Psychology of Fascism”. For Reich, the building blocks lie in patriarchy, religion and sexual repression. The powerlessness fostered by being subject to the father figure, the authority of religion, and negation of sexual desires is overcome by identifying oneself with the authoritarian national leader. The misery of one’s condition, according to Reich, “is so overshadowed by the exalting idea of belonging to a master race and having a brilliant führer.”

Patriarchy, misogyny and sexual anxieties characterise various political ideologies and parties. Thus, a national-level Left leader found a condom advertisement “disgusting and dirty” and argued it would lead to a rise in rape cases. And Mulayam Singh Yadav infamously justified rape.

But patriarchy, misogyny and sexual anxieties acquire a particular viciousness when combined with a militant and majoritarian religious nationalism. Women become the upholders of the tradition of the whole nation as a community. Here, the celebration of motherhood, purity, chastity, and women as asexual beings, which is characteristic of every patriarchal community, acquires now national urgency.

This is not something that is peculiar to Hindutva. The Southeast Asian miracle economies, according to scholars, were also a product of Confucian patriarchal authoritarianism where women, the bearers of tradition and asexuality, were subservient. The Islamic Revolution in Iran was founded on the severe curtailment of women’s rights and sexuality.

Hence, sex—outside marriage as well as community—is a sacrilege for it ruptures the link between women and community identity/nationhood, and women and honour of the community/nation. As Reich recognizes, “sexually awakened women, affirmed and recognized as such, would mean the complete collapse of the authoritarian ideology.” Therefore, Padmavati cannot be allowed to be defiled by the Muslim Khilji for it would be a defilement of the nation as well. And an Akhila cannot choose to become Hadiya and choose her own partner.

Here women are not autonomous or sexual beings capable of making their own decisions. They are gullible and child-like whose love simply falls prey to jihad.

Men too face some strictures as transgressions affect patriarchal control by promoting anarchy. Thus, a 24-year old unmarried Patel, cannot have sex. Public (not private) photographs of Nehru smoking together with a foreign woman dignitary or even applying tilak to the visiting Jacqueline Kennedy violate the prescribed modes of man-woman interaction (rights of LGBTQ+ persons, who are a constant source of vile humour, cannot even be contemplated here).

The same sexual anxieties marked the short-lived move of the Modi government to ban pornographic websites (ironic, because the other half of repulsion imposed by repression is stimulation evidenced by BJP MLAs caught watching pornography in the Karnataka and Gujarat Assemblies).

These anxieties also trouble the BJP leader who commented on the thousands of condoms, liquor bottles and cigarettes found daily in JNU. As he put it: “They gorge on meat… these anti-nationals.” Even Sanjay Bhansali, now at the receiving end of Hindutva ire, cannot escape portraying Khilji as a meat-devouring “barbarian.” His earlier films like Bajirao Mastani transposes the Hindutva binary of Hindu-Muslim to the 18th century.

That is why Hardik Patel smoking and drinking or a Nehru smoking even without the presence of women is considered as taboo. For, eating meat, drinking and smoking all loosen inhibitions leading to a wider challenge to the code of sexual repression as well as authoritarian ideology.

Importantly, these anxieties and violent pathologies play out on the terrain of new social media technologies like Twitter and Facebook, as well those like Photoshop which generate fake images. If identifying with the strong leader overcame the foot soldier’s own powerlessness, this acquires new dimensions (which Reich could not have foreseen in the 1930s) like the leader following him back on social media. This is incredibly empowering for the ordinary worker/follower of the authoritarian ideology.

The ordinary worker is not merely part of a mass media audience or a mere consumer of political news. Instead, he feels that, finally, he is a participant through social media, or, as what media scholar Alex Bruns calls “produser”— a user who is also a producer of content. Hence, Mr Malviya’s defence that Mr Modi following abusers on Twitter does not endorse their character is spurious and brazen. For, when Mr Modi has 37.5 million followers, it is only a select company of 1851 people that he follows. They play a political function. He still follows Nikhil Dadhich, whose degrading tweet after Gauri Lankesh’s death caused outrage in civil society.

And when Mr Modi does not condemn the followers’ sexually abusive tweets, to them, it is a validation of their production of “political” content. The identification with the leader becomes complete when the abusers proudly proclaim, “honoured to be followed by the Prime Minister.” One particularly vitriolic abuser, followed by the PM, declares in his Twitter bio: “tweets and abuses are extremely personal.”

The Harvey Weinstein episode has caused another tectonic shift in the debate on sexual harassment, rape and patriarchy (which shows the universality of the problem and its persistence in societies which have supposedly attained sexual liberation) including naming and shaming campaigns in India aided by social media. To advance this discussion, along with a challenge to sexual violence in every social sphere and of every political hue, the ruling political ideology of religious nationalism which has normalised sexual harassment must be vehemently called out.

For instance, Mr Malviya shockingly argues that Mr Modi refuses to block abusers on Twitter because “he is a rare leader who truly believes in freedom of speech” and that he follows Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal also. Thus, death and rape threats, which under the Indian Penal Code, are criminal offences, transmogrify into a right, and the opposition leaders are equivalent to verbal sexual abusers! This is the terrifying vision of the Hindutva imagination which has converted patriarchal sexual repression into sexual pathologies. It is worth emphasising here that Prime Minister Modi is, arguably, the only democratically elected head of government in the world who refuses to unfollow Twitter sexual harassers even after they are publicly identified and after repeated focus on them.

Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 film, “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” touched upon themes like sexual fulfilment, media technology and alienation. In India of the present, sex, lies, and videotape connote something different: a politically charged dystopia.

A dystopia, even when founded upon a religious nationalism which ostensibly worships women, has produced a culture which curtails not only their sexual freedoms, but has also caused India to fall 21 spots to a rank of 108 (out of 144 countries) in gender inequality. A dystopia which has devoured those strands of religion which have a more liberatory understanding of sexuality and gender. And a dystopia which has brutalized sexuality through various debasements delivered also through the latest media technologies capable of producing “post-truths” and “alternative facts.”

This article was originally published in The Wire.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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